According to market research firm Circana, sales of the U.S. canned fish industry have skyrocketed from $2.3 billion in 2018 to more than $2.7 billion this year.
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Sardines swirl in candied lemons.
Mackerel in curry sauce. Grilled squid bathed in ink.
These are all culinary delicacies that have long been popular in Europe and are now making their mark on American menus.
The country’s canned seafood industry goes well beyond tuna sandwiches, a pandemic-era trend that began as Americans in lockdown demanded more of their pantry staples.
Since then, the U.S. market has only grown, fueled by social media influencers touting the benefits of the powerful protein-packed food in brightly colored metal containers.
On the TikTok channel Tinned – Fishionado, Kris Wilson posts recipes for quick meals, including a mix of leftover rice, soy sauce, avocado and a runny egg with a can of smoked mussels from the Danish company Fangst.
Canned fish, as it is called in Europe, is now a regular on the menus of wine bars from San Francisco to Houston and New York, where customers scoop the contents straight from the can.
There are even canned seafood clubs that mimic wine clubs by sending members monthly shipments of different types of seafood packaged in different combinations of spices, oils and sauces.
Canned fish videos, from tastings to tips on how to remove fishy smell from cans, have been viewed more than 30 million times on TikTok.
According to market research firm Circana, the U.S. canned fish industry’s revenue has grown from $2.3 billion in 2018 to more than $2.7 billion this year.
Becca Millstein opened a Los Angeles-based seafood canning business in 2020 after eating more of it during the coronavirus lockdowns.
“When we were all quarantined at home and preparing 100% of our meals day in and day out, it was very time-consuming to make satisfying meals,” she says. “I found myself eating so much canned fish, and at the same time, the options I found while strolling the aisles of my local grocery store just weren’t great.”
Millstein lived in college in Spain and spent time in Portugal, both countries where canned fish have long been part of people’s diets, so she knew there were better options.
“I was eating the same canned fish that my great-grandmother Rose ate in Brooklyn in the 1930s,” she said. “I just thought that was crazy.”
Her company, Fishwife Tinned Seafood Co., wanted to offer high-quality, sustainably produced seafood.
Millstein said she looked for canneries in Spain and Portugal and contacted fishermen along the West Coast who put her in touch with canneries in Oregon and Washington.
“Our mission is really to stimulate and transform the canned seafood industry and make it what we think it can be,” Millstein said, adding that this means offering much more “than tuna sandwiches.”
Fishwife products, priced from $7.99 to $10.99 per can, are intended as delicacies that can be served over rice bowls, on charcuterie boards or in salads, Millstein said.
She added that her company’s revenue grew 250% from 2021 to 2022 and is on track to increase about 150% this year, although she declined to release dollar figures.
To that end, Fishwife’s products include smoked salmon brined in salt, garlic salt and brown sugar and then hand-packed into cans containing Sichuan chili chips, manufactured in the Chinese city of Chengdu.
The anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea are packed with high-quality Spanish extra virgin olive oil, sourced directly from farmers in Northern Spain.
The company’s smoked albacore tuna is caught in the Pacific Northwest, one rod at a time to minimize harm to marine species such as sea turtles, sharks, rays, dolphins and seabirds, which can be inadvertently caught during commercial fishing operations.
“These are products that you would want to serve to people who come to eat,” Millstein said. “They’re not just something you’d want to mash up really quickly and feed yourself for a quick, cheap protein fix.”
Simi Grewal, co-founder of San Francisco wine shop and bar DECANTsf, said her company turned to canned fish to feed customers, in part because it doesn’t have a kitchen suitable for cooking.
“It’s super versatile, especially when we talk about pairing it with wine,” she said.
Canned fish in the store costs between $8 for Ati Manel garfish, a needle-like fish served in olive oil from Portugal, to $36 for Conservas de Cambados ‘Sea Urchin Caviar’ from Spain’s Galician estuaries.
“People make a lot of assumptions about canned fish being a cheap product. And you know, when you come here, this is a very well-curated program,” she said. “I spend hours a month researching these people and trying to find out what the latest items they have are.”
Maria Finn, a chef and author in the Bay Area, said canned fish appeals to everyone from foodies looking for the latest flavor to doomsayers stocking their bunkers.
She takes Patagonia Provisions mussels on her annual mushroom hunt for a quick lunch and keeps cans of Wild Planet sardines in her bag in case wildfires threaten her home.
“I think if there’s anything that can keep you alive for a long time, it’s going to be a can of sardines wrapped in olive oil,” she joked.
Canned fish can last up to five years and does not require refrigeration. This provides an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, which is the largest source of greenhouse gases in agriculture and has a larger carbon footprint than any other protein source.
According to scientists, the way people produce and consume food contributes almost 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.
But canned fish is not without its drawbacks.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned people, especially pregnant women, against eating too much fish, especially tuna and swordfish which can contain high amounts of mercury.
But many cans contain smaller fish such as sardines and anchovies, which have the added benefit of being low in mercury. However, the canned products typically have a higher salt content than fresh seafood, health officials say.
Greenpeace has raised concerns about overfishing to meet growing demand and is warning buyers to do research to ensure products are sustainable.
Longline fishing is one of the most commonly used methods for tuna fishing, which the environmental group says can snare other species such as turtles and dolphins.
California was once home to thriving sardine canneries in the coastal town of Monterey, which inspired John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.” The industry disappeared decades ago when the fish population plummeted. The canneries have long been replaced by hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
John Field, a research fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, doesn’t see big factories ever coming back, but he said the trend could help small local canneries and sustainable fisheries.
He admits he didn’t think he was too confident about ordering a can from a menu.
“Personally, if I’m going out for an expensive dinner, I’d probably rather eat fresh fish than canned,” he said.